Rediscovering A 'Lost' Postwar Literary Gem

Little Boy Lost
Persephone Books
Little Boy Lost
By Marghanita Laski
Persephone Books
Paperback, 240 pages
List price: $15

Read an excerpt.

Marghanita Laski i i

Marghanita Laski first published Little Boy Lost in 1949. hide caption

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Marghanita Laski

Marghanita Laski first published Little Boy Lost in 1949.

"It was on Christmas Day, 1943, that Hilary Wainwright learnt that his little son was lost." These words open the late British novelist Marghanita Laski's Little Boy Lost, a devastating and fast-paced tale of one man's attempt to find his child in war-torn France.

Five years earlier, Hilary fled from Paris just steps ahead of the German troops, leaving behind his wife, Lisa, and day-old son. Soon after, Lisa, a volunteer in the French Resistance, died in German custody. No one is sure what happened to the newborn. After peace is declared, Hilary returns to see if a similar-seeming orphan might be his son.

Little Boy Lost, first published in 1949, has the potential to be a soap opera dressed up in period garb. All the ingredients are there: the dead wife, the man incapable of love, the ravaged French countryside, the neglected orphan. Yet no one gets off so easily, certainly not the reader. A sentimental shine would have distanced the action; instead, we feel so close to the characters we can hear them breathing.

Hilary is wonderfully complex and a dead-on depiction of a certain type of cold intellectual. A poet raised by a family that "fearfully despise[s] him," he cloaks his pain with indignation, answering those who show him kindness with distance. His poems are mostly about emotions he does not allow himself to feel. Laski's writing is so deft, we empathize with Hilary while wanting to reach into the book and smack him about the head.

This is the third Laski novel — after The Village (1952) and The Victorian Chaise-lounge (1953) — that Persephone Books has had to save from out-of-print obscurity. This lapse in availability is a shame, as Laski belongs in the company of her contemporaries Graham Greene and Elizabeth Bowen. Little Boy Lost is gem that should, and now can, be sought out and taken home.

Excerpt: 'Little Boy Lost'

Little Boy Lost
By Marghanita Laski
Persephone Books
Paperback, 240 pages
List price: $15

And then he looked at the child.

And told himself with a kind of horror, "How could I ever have imagined that this child was mine!"

* * *

For insensibly a picture of his son had been forming in his mind. He did not know this; if he tried consciously to imagine a boy who might be his, his conscious mind gave no response. But his unconscious mind retained as the image of his son the child in the snapshot that he had refused send to Pierre, the five-year-old English boy in his grey flannel shorts and blazer, short grey socks, neat brown walking shoes, wide laughing eyes under the grey felt hat, and a cheerful confident grin. In his memory of this picture his deepest expectation of recognition were founded.

But facing him was a thin little boy in a black sateen overall. Its sleeves were too short and from them dangled red swollen hands too big for the frail wrists. Hilary looked from these painful hands to the little boy's long thin grubby legs, to the crude coarse socks falling over shabby black boots that were surly several sizes too large. It's a foreign child, he thought numbly, and then he let himself look at the small white face turned towards him, a lock of black hair failing from a travesty of a parting over enormous dark eyes that stared imploringly into his.

He knew that he should have moved towards the child, greeted him naturally and with friendliness. But he could only stand and stare with horror and repulsion, saying wildly to himself, "Why does he look at me like that? He doesn't know why I'm here. Why does he look at me like that?"

He suddenly remembered as he stood there, trying desperately to move forward to the casual greeting, his Aunt Jessie telling him that in his early childhood, whenever she used to visit him at his home, he would stand by her chair and she would know that he was saying "Please take me back to the farm with you; please take me back to the farm." But he doesn't know who I am," he repeated to himself, and then the door opened behind the child and the Mother Superior came in, a child's coat over her arm.

Her eyes flickered from one to the other, and she said briskly, "Well, have you introduced yourselves yet?" Jean, this is the English gentleman I was telling you about, Monsieur Wainwright. Go and shake hands with him at once. I don't know where your manners are."

The child came slowly forward, his eyes still fixed on Hilary's face. He put out his hand, and as Hilary touched its iciness, the intensity that had held them both was broken. The boy dropped his eyes to the ground and Hilary breathed deeply and felt half-dead with weariness.

The Mother Superior seemed to notice nothing. She went on in the same cheerful voice, "Monsieur is going to spend a few days here and then he's going back to Paris to tell Madame Quilleboeuf all about you." She added with a note of anxiety, "Jean, you remember Madame Quilleboeuf, don't you?"

The boy looked apprehensive. Hilary thought, He's become scared of questions, and an impulse to spare the child made him say quickly, with assurance not interrogation in his voice, "But of course you remember Grandmaman."

Miraculously the little expression changed. Now he looked at Hilary again, but this time his eyes were full of relief and gratitude as if he had already received what he was asking for. He said, "She had a clock. A bird jumped out and said, 'Cuckoo'." The words were tumbling over each other with excitement.

Hilary thought, How queer to hear him talking French, and simultaneously, That must be the clock that the old lady sold. The nun was saying, "I too had a clock like that when I was a little girl in Alsace," and the boy quickly turned to her the face of another child, a child vivid, eager, interested.

Now the Mother Superior was saying smoothly, "I mustn't keep you both indoors talking, when I am sure you want to set out on your walk. Come here, Jean," she said, and helped him into the heavy straight black coat, buttoned it tightly, and pulled the hood up over his head. Then she opened the door and stood quietly waiting beside it until Hilary and Jean had passed her, and then she closed the door behind them and left them together in the hall.

Hilary turned the handle of the front door, but the door wouldn't open. The boy darted forward and said eagerly, "Let me. I know how to." He stood on tiptoe to release a high latch then pulled the door open and proudly held it back for Hilary to pass through.

Excerpted from Little Boy Lost, by Marghanita Laski.

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